Monday, May 24, 2010

Today's Writing Tip: Don't Mix Past and Present Tense

Lately, I've been listening to a CD called "Warning" by Green Day. In fact, it's been on instant replay in my car. I often sing along -- only in private, mind you -- and I always sing the wrong word on a certain line. I finally figured out why that is. It's because the boys are mixing past and present tense, and I'm automatically filling in the correct grammatical version.

Here's the line from "Macy's Day Parade": "When I was a kid, I thought I wanted all the things that I haven't got." Okay. What's wrong with that sentence? The words "thought" and "wanted" are both in past tense, but the word "haven't," a contraction for "have not," is in present tense. There are a couple of ways to fix this. First, we could say, "When I was a kid I thought, I wanted all the things that I had not (or hadn't) got." That keeps everything in past tense. Second, we could have someone from the present reflect back on the past and rephrase the sentence like this: "When I was a kid, I thought, I want all the things that I haven't got." (Many people use italics for thoughts, instead of quotation marks.)

Who knew how educational Green Day could be?

Sigrid Macdonald, Author of Be Your Own Editor, now available on

*This article was reprinted from

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